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High school baseball: Freshman Rice comes up big for Bulldogs in battle of undefeated teams

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The Lebanon and West Albany varsity baseball rosters are filled with seniors and juniors, 30 upperclassmen in all.

But it was a freshman, West Albany High's Drew Rice, who came up with two of the biggest plays Wednesday, including the game-winning hit in a contest featuring the last two undefeated teams in Mid-Willamette Conference play.

At the end of a pressure-packed pitchers’ duel, Rice lined a single down the left-field line to score the winning run in the Bulldogs’ 1-0 home win at Memorial Stadium.

“You’ve got to stay calm and be yourself and don’t change your approach or anything,” Rice answered with the confidence of a seasoned veteran when asked about playing a part in a situation such as the one he faced. “You definitely feel how big it was, but really just got to play the game.”

West’s Marcus Allen was hit by Lebanon starting pitcher Sam Thompson’s first pitch in the bottom of the seventh inning, and Brett Babbitt followed by grounding a single through the left side.

Zach Lyon then replaced Thompson and was called for a balk — moving the runners to second and third — before throwing his first pitch to Rice. Rice made solid contact and got the ball passed Lebanon’s Ryan Rivers just inside the third-base bag, allowing Allen to score.

Rice’s big hit came after he snagged a hard-hit, low liner off Rivers’ bat just in front of first base for the final out in the sixth. Bryant Starr had reached on a two-out walk and could have threatened to score had the ball gotten past Rice.

“Drew has a knowledge of the game that supersedes his age. You can see it defensively with that play,” Bulldogs coach Marty Johnston said of Rice, the grandson of longtime West assistant coach Bill Rice. “He doesn’t play as young as he is. It speaks to the work he’s put in and does put in.”

While the defenses behind them committed a few errors (two for each side), the starting pitchers didn’t disappoint.

Thompson, a junior left-hander, allowed four hits and a walk with five strikeouts. A senior righty, Marshall gave up just one hit, a single by Colton Vandetta to lead off the game, and one walk with 10 strikeouts.

West (14-4, 9-0) had runners on base in three of the first four innings but couldn’t produce. The Bulldogs were stuck on one hit for a long while after Allen tried to stretch a single to left into a double in the second inning but was thrown out.

Thompson gave up back-to-back two-out singles to Michael Cale and Evan Bliss in the sixth but got a pop-out to end the frame.

Marshall faced the minimum 12 batters through four innings thanks to six strikeouts and picking off Vandetta at first base in the opening frame.

Lebanon (13-4, 8-1) got a batter to second in the fifth on a Dre Smith walk and Matt Woodward’s sacrifice bunt, but Marshall got a strikeout and pop fly to end it. Two West fielding errors in the seventh had two on and one out. But Marshall drew another fly ball and Bulldogs catcher Camden Cyrus caught a short pop-up behind the plate to retire the side.

“A real good pitcher. Good velocity and he had his slider working today,” Warriors coach Jeff Stolsig said of Marshall. “I thought Sammy was a good guy to throw against these guys because he’s left-handed and an off-speed guy, and these guys like fastballs. Sam did a great job. Same did a super job.”

Added Johnston of Marshall: “That’s the great thing about Nate. When he’s on the hill, he maintains control of the game. He’s a pitcher’s pitcher and he commands the mound and dictates the flow of the game. It was a great battle. Their guy, too. Same thing. He is in the zone all day. That is a great, pure pitchers’ battle.”

Marshall said his success Wednesday came from his slider, getting ahead in pitch counts and pounding the strike zone, as well as the defense behind him.

“I know I can trust them. Just putting the ball in the zone and letting them make plays is the biggest thing for me,” he said. “Not walking a lot of guys and letting the defense do the work behind me gives me a lot of confidence.”

Marshall said Wednesday’s game, against a rival team, was one “that’s been circled on our schedule all year.” Lebanon gets its rematch, weather permitting, Friday at home.

Jesse Sowa is a sports reporter at the Corvallis Gazette-Times. He can be reached at 541-812-6065.

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